Community Education Network Supports Children and Institutions during the Pandemic

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This article is part of the “The Power of We: Local/Regional Support Networks Flourish” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Rachel Carpenter, Children’s Discovery Museum; Hannah Johnson & Candace Summers, McLean County Museum of History; Shannon Reedy, Miller Park Zoo; and Dr. Diane Wolf, Bloomington Public Schools District 87

No one group or organization can do it all. The many organizations within the Bloomington/Normal, Illinois, community that serve the educational needs of children have created multiple and sometimes overlapping support groups. In addition to educators, members include psychologists, food workers, and marketing personnel, but we all work for organizations that are tied to formal or informal education in some way. Sharing a commitment to care for families, these professionals from different nonprofit organizations work together to identify needs and coordinate responses.

During the pandemic, different groups quickly realized that we all needed to maintain consistent and regular communication to meet three distinct levels of need: 1) the needs of children and families, 2) the needs of each organization serving them, and 3) the needs of individual professionals who participated in the meetings. The Central Illinois Community Educators (CICE) stepped up to become a support group and a virtual space where professionals could share ideas and issues among people doing similar work. United Way of McLean County facilitated the formation of even more new groups including one to connect schools, childcare, and youth programming centers. The Children’s Discovery Museum participated in both pools regularly; they were very important for the success of the museum during the pandemic.

The organizations that have chosen to work together here in Bloomington/Normal could all be considered competitors within a limited market. But we realized that by working together, we can amplify our shared goal of meeting the needs of our community to the best of our ability.

History of CICE

In 2006, Dr. Diane Wolf of the Regional Office of Education (ROE) 17 wanted to help promote the variety of community resources available to public and private school students in the ROE 17 region. With this goal in mind, Dr. Wolf connected with informal educators and representatives from local institutions including the McLean County Museum of History, Children’s Discovery Museum, Livingston County War Museum, David Davis Mansion, Miller Park Zoo, Sugar Grove Nature Center, and others. Over time membership in this coalition of community educators expanded to the Bloomington and Normal public libraries, the Girl Scouts, institutions of higher education, including Illinois State University and Heartland Community College, and arts organizations including the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts and the McLean County Arts Center. The group primarily included organizations that directly served schools through onsite visits and outreach through off-site programs, loan kits, and other resources.

The group has evolved as more members have joined, but the mission largely remains the same—to inspire and support collaboration among community partners to leverage resources and better serve Central Illinois learners and educators. In the fall of 2017, an effort began to revitalize and, in some ways, reimagine the group’s form and function. Continuing to connect with like organizations within Bloomington/Normal, as well as throughout the Central Illinois region, the group was rebranded as the Central Illinois Community Educators (CICE) and effectively relaunched with a meeting of interested organizations in November of that year.

The November 2017 meeting expanded the variety of organizational members to include representatives from all forms of community education from museums, zoos/nature centers, art galleries, and cultural sites, to public libraries, afterschool programs, human service organizations, and more. Today, almost eighty individual educators representing more than fifty local educational institutions are invited to attend quarterly meetings. In addition, they receive regular information about the needs and services of participating organizations and their audiences.

Since 2017, CICE has utilized its quarterly meetings to collectively explore relevant themes including DEAI, marketing, youth development, behavioral health, census data and the human services sector, community collaboration/partnerships, and pandemic response. Participating organizations rotate host responsibilities. Themes and topics are determined based on the expertise of the host site, as well as the expressed needs and interests of the group. Hannah Johnson, director of youth & family education at the McLean County Museum of History, has facilitated CICE communication and collaboration among group members and host sites since 2017. She continues to aid in the coordination of monthly meetings among core members as an extension of the group’s initial COVID response.

Supporting the Community

When the pandemic began, CICE’s core membership of ten to twelve organizations focused on learning about each member’s capacity and identifying needs present in both our regular audiences and the larger community. Each organization is structured differently and has different sources of funding. Some were protected from many of the effects of public closures while others were not. Some organizations, like the Children’s Discovery Museum, had grant funds that needed to be reallocated appropriately. The museum was also partially supported by the town of Normal.

At each group meeting, held via Zoom beginning in April 2020, discussions focused on the current but quickly changing status of the pandemic, and the ever-evolving information released from the Illinois governor’s office and health department. We discussed the ethics of re-opening to the public and how and when to offer in-person or virtual programs. We talked about how to take programs off-site into both private and public spaces to meet community needs without being too swayed by community “wants” that were not safe for everyone. Balancing the critical need for organizational revenue against the possibility of being a site that could spread the virus was excruciating for all of us. Not everyone on the calls was a decision-maker for their organization, but we could all share information with those who held those roles.

Shannon Reedy, education specialist from Miller Park Zoo, found our discussions very useful. Even though the zoo wasn’t doing many programs during those first few months of the shut-down, she was inspired by hearing what other organizations were doing. She was eventually charged by zoo management with rolling out virtual programs, along with in-person programs that met COVID mandate standards. This was quite a challenge and required a different way of thinking about their program offerings. She was able to think through new methods, themes, and collaborations based on the stories her colleagues shared.

In our area, schools continued remote learning, but many businesses began to open. The United Way of McLean County recognized a need for childcare and youth programming and brought together organizations that were serving families in this way. Regular meetings of what became the Childcare and Youth Programming Coalition included discussions about issues the schools were seeing. For example, school counselors were particularly helpful in sharing observations on students’ mental health during the shutdown. The coalition also discussed current openings in traditional childcare programs in our area, and relevant program offerings from other informal education institutions. Rachel Carpenter, education manager from the Children’s Discovery Museum, acted as the liaison between the CICE and this new coalition, sharing the availability of all CICE partner organizations’ programming, but also their concerns about new and ongoing community needs and the funding required so that all institutions could continue to operate. As a result of many offshoot meetings, the local YMCA launched all-day programming in closed schools for students whose parents were working. The local school district also created a unique summer program in partnership with other area youth programming organizations.

The release of Cares Act funding to our local school districts enabled the creation of new summer programming. Dr. Diane Wolf, who now works for School District 87, recognized CICE as a resource to help the students in her district, which will host three weeks of summer programming for children in 2021. Diane connected with CICE members and found organizations that could adopt a grade level or group for each afternoon during the program. The Children’s Discovery Museum and the McLean County Museum of History, in conjunction with three other community partner organizations, will bring fun and playful learning experiences to the students.

This arrangement supports the museums as well. For example, as part of the Town of Normal, the Children’s Discovery Museum could not directly access federal funds targeted at learning loss. But the school districts that do are eager to partner with other learning organizations skilled at mitigating primary learning loss. The museum will replace its usual month of summer programs with this new one, guaranteeing the museum’s program income for this period.

All organizations are excited to bring their curriculum to students who may not typically be able to access their programming. These enriching learning experiences help build solid educational foundations for children as they return to school this fall.

Supporting the Organizations

The organizations that have chosen to work together here in Bloomington/Normal could all be considered competitors within a limited market. But we realized that by working together, we can amplify our shared goal of meeting the needs of our community to the best of our ability. By providing the best programming we can in our areas of expertise, and sharing our successes and failures, we can maximize impact and focus our time in ways we could not as siloed operations. All of our programming overlaps in different ways. Rather than viewing this as a problem, we see it as opportunity to share and better serve children by offering slots in one program when others get full or referring someone to a different program where their needs or interests may be better served. There are never enough resources available to do all the work that needs to be done, but together, we can do more with what we have.

Rachel Carpenter is the Education Manager at the Children’s Discovery Museum (Normal, IL); Hannah Johnson is the Director of Youth and Family Education and Candace Summers is the Director of Community Education at the McLean County Museum of History (Bloomington, IL); Shannon Reedy is the Education Specialist at the Miller Park Zoo (Bloomington, IL); and Dr. Diane Wolf is the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction at Bloomington (IL) Public Schools District 87.